Monday, September 28, 2009

Miracles and the Historical Jesus 2

Thank you, all, for your feedback, especially the discussion on Phil Harland's blog. Here I would just like to offer a couple of clarifications, and possibly point towards some responses to people's comments.

Harland's argument
On the whole I agree with Harland - and I did not read his remarks as intending to supply a 'refutation'! I especially agree with the remark that historians should recognize the fact that Jesus and others were regarded as 'miracle workers' (something which I did not deny in my original post). In fact, this acknowledgement leads on to the very question that I wanted to ask, namely, that if we acknowledge that Jesus was regarded as a miracle-worker, why was he thus regarded? To me this seems like a normal historical question, and I was asking why this is 'off-limits' in the case of Jesus. In the case of Alexander of Abonuteichos (mentioned by Harland), for instance, I doubt anyone would deny that he was regarded by some as a miracle worker. And I expect that few historians would refuse to ask why he was regarded as a miracle-worker, on the basis of the limitations of the historical method.

Possible explanations for belief in Jesus as a miracle-worker
When we are faced with the question of why Jesus was regarded as a miracle-worker, there seem to be three main alternatives: the supernatural explanation (that he really was a miracle-worker), the rationalistic (e.g., that he successfully employed basic medical techniques), or the mythical (that Jesus was not actually a miracle-worker and that these stories were attributed to him at a later date for theological reasons). This tripartite division of possible solutions of course derives from Strauss, and the purpose of my original post was not so much to make a new contribution to this discussion as to ask why more recent scholars reintroduce 'miracle' as a category appropriate for talking about Jesus (at least with regards to his reputation), and rarely (if at all) discuss these three candidates for explaining this reputation.

At least two of these explanations (the rationalistic and the mythical) would not seem to be especially controversial as explanations in themselves (even if we would question the plausibility of some 'rationalistic' explanations). I expect that one or the other of these would normally be invoked in discussion of ancient (or even more modern) figures to whom miracles have been attributed - and yet scholars do not frequently invoke either of these explanations in connection with Jesus, but stop with his 'reputation'.

The 'supernatural' explanation and Hume's view
The 'supernatural' explanation would seem to be the most controversial, for the reason that few would regard it in most cases as an adequate historical explanation of a miracle report in the case of most historical figures (though, of course, many believers would regard it as appropriate in the case of Jesus). One reason we might reject the supernatural explanation is Hume's view. As I read Hume, his argument is not circular (or at least it is not obviously so). At the very least, we can state a weaker form of his argument that is not circular:

(1) Supernatural events (like 'miracles', if they occur) do not occur very often (they are 'very unusual'; I hope this is uncontroversial!).
(2) Very unusual events require extremely strong verification, especially if there is an alternative explanation that would require less strong verification.
(3) Therefore, we would need extremely strong verification to assert with justification that a miracle had occurred.
(4) If this extremely strong verification is absent, we should accept a non-supernatural explanation as more probable.

These premises all seem to be quite plausible, and if the argument is circular I do not see where it begs the crucial question. And even if the argument is not true in general terms (so as to rule out a miracle ever verifying that a miracle had occurred), it would surely be valid in the case of ancient texts such as the reports of the miracles of Alexander of Abonuteichos. If it is valid in cases such as this, then if we are treating the Gospels as historians normally treat other historical texts then this judgement should apply to them as well: and therefore we would be obliged to accept a rationalistic or mythical explanation of the origin of Jesus's reputation as a miracle worker.

The option remains open to the reader of the Gospels to reject Hume's argument (and any similar argument) and suggest that Jesus was regarded as a miracle-worker because he was a miracle worker (though I think this would have to be done on theological grounds rather than on any logical charge of circularity). Some scholars do this quite openly - for instance N.T. Wright. But many scholars do not, and instead choose to stop at Jesus's 'reputation' as a miracle-worker without asking the question of why he was so regarded. The purpose of my previous post was to suggest that the history of scholarship has provided us with at least two historically possible explanations of why Jesus was regarded as a miracle-worker (the rationalistic and the mythological), and therefore if some scholars choose not to examine this question they need to do so for reasons other than that it is not an historically proper question, or that an historically proper explanation cannot be provided.


  1. Is not each historical event unusual? Even unrepeatable? We cannot recreate the situation of the American Civil War, nor the various alliances and backdoor treaties in WW1, or any other historical event for that matter. We study them just the same. And we offer historical imagination when we do not have the evidence one might require, need, or desire. How then does one acquire this "strong verification" for instance if all historical events are viewable as unrepeatable, or unusual? Or are we stating that history has worked out logically and consistently according to someone's grand plan? (I would hope not)

    Has history as a humanities pursuit capitulated to only one kind of knowing, that of the empirical sciences which demand repeatable steps? Just my own thoughts.

  2. "Is not each historical event unusual? Even unrepeatable? We cannot recreate the situation of the American Civil War, nor the various alliances and backdoor treaties in WW1, or any other historical event for that matter."

    We can't, but we can understand them by analogy. We are familiar with wars and politics in our own period and it is not difficult to imagine them occurring in the past. What's more if we did doubt, say the existence of the American Civil War or WWI-era treaties, there is a vast amount of documentation to support their existence, and even tell us why and how they came about.

    Now compare this with the miracles of Jesus. Uri Geller notwithstanding, miracles of the Biblical variety are not something we see in our own world, nor have prior examples of miracles ever been well-documented enough to be credible. It simply makes no sense to say that an account of a battle or a political treaty should be treated with the same degree of skepticism as an account of a miracle -the former is an event that we can understand by everyday analogy, the latter is an event that has no analogy whatsoever and contradicts our understanding of the world. The latter is simply required to have an extraordinarily strong verification since it makes an extraordinary claim. Not just that a battle occured or a treaty was signed, but that natural law as we know it was violated.

    "Has history as a humanities pursuit capitulated to only one kind of knowing, that of the empirical sciences which demand repeatable steps? Just my own thoughts."

    I am not at all sure what you mean by your question here. What other kind of 'knowing' should conscientious historians (not theologians, not believers, but historians) practise?

  3. I think Maxim is right to urge historians to press beyond a history of what people thought. Surely historians are interested in more than that. Isn’t part of the point of history to show how (at least some) people thought or think inadequately, whether, for example, by clarifying what certain participants in the past could not themselves appreciate or by teaching current and future generations something we don’t already know or have misunderstood? I assume historians are interested in accounts of the past that are true, and true accounts are not limited to what people thought, though what people thought is of concern to accounts that are true.

    A history that settles for restating what people thought rather than striving for an account that is true seems analogous to a prevalent trend in theology that settles for saying what others say about God and never says anything about God. Frans Jozef van Beeck has called this “theologology.” I thought Phil Harding’s claim that “miracle-workers exist for the historian if historical subjects have the category (or one like it) and apply it to another historical subject we are studying (e.g., Jesus)” was interesting along these lines. I take Phil’s point to be that the historian has to take miracles seriously enough to be true to the people of the past she is describing. Surely that’s right. But what many infer from this claim about the historian’s “object” of enquiry, and Phil seems almost to imply, is that the claims of the people of the past can never amount to more than what they thought. Surely that’s not right. After all, the historian ends up with an account not simply of “here’s what people reported” but “here’s what happened.” The historian crosses a threshold at some point, then, from what people thought to what happened, however she might try to qualify the latter (e.g., as what she thinks happened). Somehow what people claimed is woven together with other evidence and with the intellectual tendencies of the historian into an account of what happened. So what people claimed actually contributes to the historian’s judgment of what happened and thus is more than just what they thought. Otherwise, history learns nothing from what people thought. It only confirms what the historian thinks.

    You can see from the above, I think, how the question of the historicity of miracles gets framed according to the modern fixation on the subject, wherein understanding what happened has to do with coordinating what people thought with what the historian thinks. This makes time incidental to rather than constitutive of what the historian does, since it’s only about coordinating the way different isolated subjects relate to a fundamentally changeless world. I don’t think there’s any shortcut out of this trance we find ourselves in, but it strikes me as a quite narrow approach. It’s simply a philosophical and empirical mistake to say that the drama of history occurs inside persons’ minds. I suppose the framing of the question has something to do with recent insecurity about claiming to know the truth about anything, too, at least beyond the truth that everybody supposedly knows. The way the historian is limited by the particularities of her life is indeed almost overwhelming, but we will (rightly) not surrender the fact that some accounts of the past are truer than others, and so I think (with Maxim, I gather) that we must ask whether reports of Jesus’s miracles are true, even if we have to admit that a historical answer to that question is difficult to give. The challenges may be due as much to prevalent historical method (e.g., influence of thought like Hume’s) as to the difficulty of the particular historical question.